As promised, I’ve invited my good friends Nathan and Tim to respond to my post, “To Ash or not to Ash; Why Even Ask?” I’m sure you’ll appreciate their thoughtfulness on this topic as much as I have. You can follow Nathan Campbell on Twitter @NathanBCampbell and Tim Olson @Tim_J_Olson.

[Nathan] If I gave you the password to my Evernote journal, you would see that ‘Zach Carter’ has his own ‘tag.’ Our conversations after class and in-between parking lots have been some of my most cherished memories at Seminary. Zach is a clear thinker; I have absolutely nothing but respect for my dear brother and friend – which is the only reason I agreed to offer a rebuttal to his post.

You ask: Why celebrate? I say: Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to shape our stories through a healthy remembrance of our mortality and a renewed hope in our bodily resurrection. Or, as Gregg Allison says: “We need to repent from vain imaginations of our own immortality.”[1]

[Tim] I also have great respect for Zach. We met in our very first class at Seminary, and are now finishing our M.Div. journeys together in our final class. I would sit under his preaching – that’s how much I trust his convictions and theology. Celebrating Ash Wednesday for the first time this year was in many ways a culmination of a personal journey of mine. My dad was raised in the Catholic church, but found Christ in a Protestant, Evangelical one. Because of this I not only grew up in a church free from liturgical tradition, but also in a household that stayed far away from anything that resembled Catholic tradition, for good reason. So when my wife and I became members of a Southern Baptist church, which celebrated many aspects of the liturgical calendar, I had many uncertainties and objections. After all, my father is one of the Godliest men I know, and he was anti-liturgy and liturgical practices – should I be too? It wasn’t until three years in, with much wrestling and deep prayer, that I can celebrate Ash Wednesday fully aware of the deep meaning it can hold for Evangelical Christians.

I think it’s important to emphasize before we begin that as Zach would affirm that Christian’s can celebrate Lent without being sinful, we also affirm that they can abstain from Lent without being sinful as well. However, in contrast to his opinion that it is not helpful or wise, I would argue that Lent, when redeemed in all of its Gospel glory, is a beautiful tradition to be celebrated within the life of the church.

[Nathan] On Wednesday I couldn’t look away, the more I stared, the harder it was to see. As I watched the slow and solemn processional towards the front of the church, I was struck by a simple fact: we are going to die. As I reached the front of the line, it sunk in deeper: I am going to die. That smear on my forehead was a palpable expression of the words I had just heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I wanted to weep for Lazarus (Jn 11:35). As I glanced down the aisle, I was reminded that my friend: Tim Olson would one day lie motionless in a coffin while his body turned back to dust. But…

I did not mourn like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13), rather, I felt a tangible sense of longing as I cried out for the day when “Everything sad would come untrue.” I pined for the day when the sinews would snap back in place and that tingling sensation in your hands would return and our bodies would rise and be with the Lord! What a marvelous day that will be! Yes, it is better to depart and be with the Lord (Php 1;23), but it is best to be embodied and with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1-5). I wanted to hear the trumpet sound and see the instant change – the dead raised imperishable (1 Cor 15:52). You can still appreciate these truths if you don’t practice the liturgical calendar, but what an opportunity for concentrated reflection on these truths!

Restor(i)ed

[Nathan] We are a storied people. We are shaped by the stories that we tell. This is James K.A. Smith’s idea of ‘cultural liturgies.’ It is in recognition of these cultural liturgies that I have cultivated a practice of intentional liturgy. As Smith says: “The temporality of Christian worship – macrocosmically expressed in the Christian year, microcosmically expressed in particular elements each Sunday – trains our imagination to be eschatological, looking forward not to the end of the world but to “the end of the world as we know it.””[2]  Elsewhere he writes: “Worship that restores our loves will be worship that restor(i)es our imagination.” This is the goal. We want to be “restor(i)ed.” The practice of intentional liturgy is an attempt to rehearse – both microcosmically and macrocosmically – the metanarrative of the Gospel. As Sojourn pastor Mike Cosper says: “Liturgy that immerses the people of God in the rhythms of grace doesn’t merely train them for gospel-centered worship; it trains them for gospel-centered lives.”[3] The liturgies we practice at the church will help us to be the church.

I think the big question comes down to this: are you consciously liturgical? Sadly, because so much of ‘evangelicalism’ is not consciously liturgical they are being shaped irresponsibly by cultural liturgies.

[Tim] I think Nathan’s point is important to emphasize here, and I think Zach (and Trueman for that matter) would agree – we need liturgies and practices that remind us of the story of the Gospel. Zach would argue that these should be done in every Lord’s Day gathering, and I would agree. But that does not mean that there is no place for special gatherings within the church. Lent, and Ash Wednesday, is not simply an “unnecessary flourish” in Christian liturgy. It is a deliberate chance to point Christians, who so often forgo thoughts of death and the temporality of life, to deliberately pause and reflect on these weighty truths.

I love my wife. She is dear to me. I remind her of that every day that I can. We even try our best to maintain regular date nights (let’s say they are weekly for sake of illustration). But we also have a day set aside where we celebrate particular aspects of our relationship. We still commemorate our wedding anniversary. We still acknowledge the date of our engagement. Do we remind each other of our love on more than just these dates? Absolutely. But these dates are special opportunities for us to pause and reflect.

A Grab-Bag People

[Nathan] This is where Dr. Mohler’s point comes in: evangelicalism as it stands is frail, unless it is rooted in the history and practice of the Protestant Reformation, it might as well have ashes imposed on it. But, here is where I would push back. If our history books only go back to 1517, our history is incomplete. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Luther ‘insult’[4] as much as the next guy, but the Church didn’t begin in Wittenburg. Our tradition is undercut if our tradition is simply Reformational. (Again, don’t misunderstand me, Calvin is my homeboy and Luther…my crazy uncle… but we need a trans-cultural and trans-historical understanding of Christendom).

[Tim] Let’s not leave out the greatest reformer of them all – Ulrich Zwingli.

[Nathan] You and your Zwingli!

[Nathan] It is here that Trueman’s offer of hyper-local theologies is inconsistent and unhelpful. Even if “Old School Presbyterianism has a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder the Egyptians or even the Anglicans.” I wouldn’t necessarily call my tradition – Southern Baptist – particularly ‘rich’ (Sorry Greg Wills). I have an appreciation for figures such as J.P. Boyce, and if we are broadening the tent to ‘Baptists’ in general – there is no one I would rather read than C.H. Spurgeon, but if we didn’t adapt our tradition, it would be hard to write this while my brothers and sisters sat on the “Colored Only” side of the pew. We must adapt our tradition. In fact, all of us do. For instance when was the last time you sang ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ – a Lutheran hymn?  Have you profited from J.I. Packer – an Anglican? Or, like a good millennial, have you retweeted Tim Keller – a Presbyterian – in the past week? I am happy to grab-bag from other traditions because the tradition of evangelicalism is a diseased and anemic movement on its own.

We are already a ‘grab-bag’ people. Even though many Baptists don’t practice Ash Wednesday, most still practice other church holidays. What SBC church doesn’t have a Christmas service? This is where your point about a regularly ordered worship service comes in. In a properly ordered worship service, the celebration of God the Son Incarnate ought to be prominent. If it is, then what is the point of celebrating Christmas once a year? Christmas is an opportunity for concentrated celebration of Christ. Again, Jamie Smith: “Thus Advent shakes us our of the presentist complacency that we can be lulled into. Instead we are called and formed to be a people of expectancy – looking for the coming (again) of the Messiah. We are a futural people who will not seek to escape the present, but will always sit somewhat uneasy in the present, haunted by the brokenness of the “now.”[5] In the same way, Ash Wednesday should not be the only time during the year that we think of death, repentance, and the resurrection from the dead but it provides an opportunity for concentrated reflection on these truths. Matt Chandler explained this well in a recent video: “At the end of the day, the goal isn’t ‘lets give up all these things,’ but it is: how do I reorient my heart in this season to remember the sufferings of Jesus Christ for my sins, so that on Easter Sunday morning I rejoice in a way that I would not be able to rejoice if Easter snuck up on me?”[6]

[Tim] I appreciate Zach’s insight into “four routes that young people who grew up in evangelicalism take when they taste freedom,” but I would argue that he is missing one helpful and important root, or perhaps even writing it off as a “religious experience” fix, and that is a fifth route – the ability to redeem liturgical practices with the beauty of the Gospel for the glory of God and the benefit of the saints. Yes we can simply “stop buying candy” as Zach urges us to do, and many should, at Easter time, but let’s not trivialize. I would argue the answer is not to do away with rich tradition and practice simply because it’s being misused for “experience.”

[Nathan] Good point Tim, I think this fifth route has been gaining momentum, it is important to acknowledge and understand why churches like Sojourn – and others – have moved in this direction.

[Tim] Let’s face it – millennials, and many from other generations, have either a dislike or disinterest in history. When this moves into their views towards the traditions and practices of the Church – evangelicalism suffers. Practicing Ash Wednesday and Lent are brief opportunities for present-minded people to lift up our eyes to the God of history, realize we are part of a faith much larger and more rooted than ourselves, and praise God that He has always been working in history. As Jon Payne puts it, “The study of church history, however, is meant to provide more than just inspiration. Serious reflection on the past protects us from error, reminds us of God’s faithfulness, and motivates us to persevere.”[7]

[Nathan] I cannot defend every iteration of the liturgical calendar. I don’t pretend to know everything about it myself. Honestly I wouldn’t recommend it to every church. There are few evangelical churches that I believe would be able to handle a proper treatment of the practice – let alone introducing it to their congregations.

[Tim] Preach!

[Nathan] But I fear that we have thrown out the baby with the holy water. I agree with you Zach, there is an abuse and a tendency towards self-made religion in the use of asceticism as self-made religion during the season. That is why I say, along with Paul: Eat! Drink! Touch! (Col 2:16-23) But, this is where Colossians 2:16 comes in – Paul allows the Colossians’ consciousness to prevail in questions of food and drink and festival. Yours, and Trueman’s emphasis on freedom of worship is right on here. But, the abuse of a thing does not rule out its proper use. Just like the Colossians, we can celebrate festivals while not viewing them as self-made religion.

You ask: Why ‘look back to human mortality – to something that was taken care of at the cross’? I would answer: Because we still die. Mortality may have been taken care of at the Cross – or more aptly the Resurrection (Rom 6:9) – but the whole creation groans for the ‘not yet’ (Rom 8:22)! Reflection on mortality is not nullified after the Cross – chronologically – death was defeated by the time James wrote to the Diaspora, but he still reflected on the temporality of this life as an impetus to trust in the Lord’s meticulous sovereignty (Js 4:13-15). In the tension of the already/not yet, we can still mourn death in the ‘already’ as we cry out: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev 22:20) in anticipation of the ‘not yet.’ In our fast-paced world, full over over-realized optimism and modern medicine, it is essential to regularly reflect on the truth of our mortality and repent of time frivoled away while we stretch for the Day when the dead will be raised imperishable!

So, instead of asking: Why celebrate Ash Wednesday? We would ask: Why not?

In Christ,

Nathan B. Campbell and Tim Olson


[1] According to Dr. Allison: Ash Wednesday is designed for two purposes: the remembrance of our morality and a call to repentance in line with the Gospel. Watch Dr. Allison’s SBTS Chapel address from Spring 2012 entitled ‘Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down’ (here: http://equip.sbts.edu/event/chapel/ashes-ashes-we-all-fall-down/)

[2] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 158.

[3] Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 124.

[4] Check out the ‘Luther Insult Generator’: http://ergofabulous.org/luther/?

[5] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 157-158.

[6] http://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/asktvc/what-is-lent

[7] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/why-study-church-history/